This Can't Last: Study Ranks Countries by Environmental Sustainability

A new study of environmental sustainability put Finland first and North Korea last, with the United States slightly above the middle of the pack.

The 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) by environmental experts at Yale and Columbia Universities ranked 146 countries based on various factors, including past and present pollution, environmental management efforts, waste generation, greenhouse gas emissions, natural resources on hand, and the capacity to improve environmental performance over time.

The top five countries:

  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Uruguay
  • Sweden
  • Iceland

The worst five:

  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Taiwan
  • Iraq
  • North Korea

The report was presented Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The United States places 45th in the rankings, sandwiched between The Netherlands (44) and the United Kingdom (46). The United States got good marks for water quality and environmental protection capacity but low scores for waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions.

"The ESI provides a valuable policy tool, allowing benchmarking of environmental performance country-by-country and issue-by-issue," said Daniel Esty, professor at Yale University and the creator of the ESI. "By highlighting the leaders and laggards, which governments are wary of doing, the ESI creates pressure for improved results."

"Income is a critical driver of environmental results," the report states. "At every level of economic development, however, there are countries managing their environmental challenges well and others less so. For instance, Belgium is as wealthy as Sweden, but it lags badly with regard to pollution control and natural resource management. In this regard, the variables that gauge a country's commitment to good governance -- including robust political debate, a free press, lack of corruption, rule of law are highly correlated with overall environmental success."

The report suggests environmental protection need not come at the cost of competitiveness. Finland is the equal of the United States in competitiveness but scores much higher on environmental sustainability and outperforms the U.S. across a spectrum of issues, from air pollution to contributions to global-scale environmental efforts, the study found.

Somewhat bleakly, the report concludes that even Finland has work to do.

"No country is on a sustainable trajectory," said Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.